Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

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Eleven Theses on the Overall Current Political Disaster, by Alan N. Shapiro

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Eleven Theses on the Overall Current Political Disaster

by Alan N. Shapiro

So how am I going to apply Albert Camus’ political ethics today?

For a very long time, my favorite films have been 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick and Blade Runner by Philip K. Dick / Ridley Scott.

Close behind are David Cronenberg films like Videodrome, eXistenZ, Naked Lunch, A History of Violence, Cosmopolis, Crash, and The Fly.

And science fiction / media theory films like Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, Brazil, and The Zero Theorem; plus The Truman Show, Escape from New York, Total Recall, Solaris, Moon, Minority Report, Ex Machina, Cube, Primer, Her, Tron, I Robot, Gamer, etc.

But now 2001 and Blade Runner have been surpassed as my favorite film by Far from Men (Loin des Hommes, 2014), directed by David Oelhoffen, starring Viggo Mortenson and Reda Kateb, and based on the short story “The Guest / The Host” (L’Hôte) by Albert Camus, my favorite 20th century writer and thinker, the winner of the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature.

This is a story about radical existential freedom, about compassion and communication between individuals from very different cultures, about loving life in spite of extreme difficulties, and about being against war.

Camus was right in the 1950s to stake out a third position against both French colonialism in Algeria and against the violent “Algerian revolution” which almost all other French leftist intellectuals supported at the time.

And Camus was the editor of the French underground anti-fascist resistance newspaper Combat from 1943 to 1947.

I grew up on Long Island and in New York City and lived the first 35 years of my life in the USA.

Now I have lived 25 years in Europe – stints in Italy, Switzerland, France, Croatia, and Ireland, and most of the time in Germany.

I have had two careers: one as an intellectual and visiting professor focused on media theory / science fiction / futurist design / sociology of the information society; and one as a software developer / IT consultant.

Now right-wing authoritarianism is dangerously on the rise in both the United States (Donald Trump) and in many European countries (Poland, Hungary, France, the Netherlands, etc., and the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany). I am frightened by it, but I will have to learn to live with it.

I have to confess that, in all my years living in Germany, I did not pay all that much attention to what goes on in Germany politically. I do not especially like any of the political parties here. I have somewhat of an affinity with the Greens, but am also very critical of them.

Overall, I think that the parliamentary system here with 6 political parties is better than what we have in America with the two-party system which is a tyranny of the majority.

So here are my eleven theses on the overall current political disaster in the USA and in Europe (focused on Germany):

(1)   Six months ago, I predicted that Donald Trump would become the presidential candidate of the Republican Party. Almost eveyone else was laughing at that idea. Now it’s clear that there is a very good chance that Trump will become President. This is a catastrophe and God help us. Trump’s rise has primarily been enabled by the news media (television networks, newspapers, websites, etc.), including the left-liberal news media like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Trump – similar to Howard Stern – is an enormously talented “shock entertainer”. Like the Kardashians, he is a master of “Reality TV.” Reality TV has now taken over the formerly democratic political arena. The entire news media was and is primarily interested in making money from the Trump phenomenon, treating the public as a bunch of titillation-seeking “eyeballs”. So the fact that Trump is a fascist, sexist and racist, the likelihood that a Trump presidency would be the end of American democracy (Johnny Depp) is much less important to the news media than making money from the Trump spectacle. Saturday Night Live has been promoting Trump for years. The left-liberal news media has opposed Trump on the level of content, but has in effect supported him by giving him endless attention.

(2)   I have always been a critic of the hyper-real consumer society, the image-saturated media culture, the Baudrillard-Philip K. Dick simulacra, and the many aspects of our political system which are the simulation and spectacle of democracy rather than the real thing. But there are things a lot worse than the dumbed-down consumer society and the simulation of democracy. There is fascism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism. And now it is becoming clear that we are appallingly badly educated about the history and practice of authoritarian political systems. Large numbers of people in Europe and the United States – angered and frustrated by their own economic difficulties, by radical Islam, by terrorism, by the arrival of refugees and immigrants – seem to be willing to accept the rise of fascist authoritarianism, just sort of for the heck of it. Why not? We haven’t had that for a while. We have done a lousy job of educating people about history.

(3)   I would have liked to see Bernie Sanders be the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. But I will vote for Hillary Clinton. Not for Jill Stein of the Green Party. I regret that I voted for Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader in the year 2000. Ralph got 2.7% of the vote, and this contributed to Al Gore losing the election to George W. Bush, and I think that Gore would have been a pretty good President. I hope that Mister Authoritarian Donald Trump can be stopped by Hillary Clinton (unfortunately a weak candidate due to her establishment insider status and exaggerated lust after money which she shares with Trump), but I am starting to psychologically face the possible inevitability of Trump’s victory because, to say it bluntly, there are a lot of stupid Americans and a lot of short-sighted institutions like the news media and the Republican Party who are poised to benefit from Trump’s rise.

(4)   Unusual for me, I have been reading tons of material in the last six months about what is going on politically in Germany. This is an increasingly polarized situation. It isn’t good. I don’t side with either the established system or the “alternative”. I am developing a balanced position in the middle, seeing the partial validity of some of the arguments on both sides.

(5)   I have read very carefully the official party program of the Alternative für Deutschland, both their national program and their regional programs in various states. I think that it’s very good that they have introduced into German political discussion a critical view about Islam. But when you read very carefully what they actually stand for (as opposed to what they say they are against), no I don’t like it. What they are really interested in is “German cultural identity” and some sort of Christian identity. Well, I am an American, a Jew, and an atheist. So I don’t know where that German-Christian cultural identity stuff would leave me. It seems that the Alternative für Deutschland ideal of German identity involves going back to before 1914. They want to reduce the study of the history of the Third Reich and the Holocaust in German schools. Well, perhaps there has indeed been too much emphasis on the Holocaust, but what’s really important about knowing what happened in Germany from 1929 to 1945 is to appreciate positively the democratic achievements of post-World War II West German (and later unified German) society. The history of Nazi Germany and of postwar Germany as its opposite are a unified whole. The great achievements of this liberal, enlightened, intelligent, technologically and economically successful society, which I admire and am grateful to for allowing me to live here as their guest, are achievements built upon a strong anti-fascist consciousness developed through knowledge of what happened in Nazi Germany. Try to erase knowledge about Nazi Germany and you are erasing knowledge of the achievements of the postwar democracy. And I guess that Alternative für Deutschland doesn’t like the Weimar Republic either. So it’s all the way back to 1914 for them, although maybe they love the “heroics” of the World War I trenches. The news media manipulates and distorts in a lot of complex ways, but those who nowadays use the term “lying press” (Lügenpresse) are engaging in a very dangerous and distorted simplification. The quality of journalism and newspapers in Germany is very high, when compared to say, their counterparts in America.

(6)   The Angela Merkel government, and the Greens and Social Democrats who have supported her, made huge mistakes last year in taking in one million refugees and immigrants. Integration of immigrants who are primarily Muslims is a huge practical problem for German and European society. To just blindly barrel ahead with this process seems to be based on something like a wrong “abstract humanitarianism.” Having compassion for people who have nothing, who had to flee their country, who might drown in the Mediterranean sea, is good. But being so caught up in that abstract humanitarianism which is widespread among left-liberals in Germany that you rush headlong into it without seeing the massive practical problems, including how this development would lead to the rise of the Far Right and the increasing polarization of German society – this was a massive mistake. And it was more than a mistake, because it has its roots in some wrong political philosophy ideas which need to be analyzed.

(7)   Radical Islamic terrorism is a terrible thing. We need an intelligent strategy for defeating it. Islam is overall not an Enlightenment worldview. I would like to see many more Muslim intellectuals step forward and call for a modernizing Reformation of Islam. I want to see them denounce Radical Islamic terrorism and its roots in Radical Islamic ideas. Every time there is a terrorist attack, for example in Paris or Brussels, I see left-liberal journalists on CNN saying “this has nothing to do with Islam.” Well, that’s wrong. It’s important to say that the majority of Muslims are not responsible for this. But many of them are responsible. And they should take more responsibility on the good, ethical side of responsibility. In addition, I question if many supporters and politicians of Alternative für Deutschland really care at all about Islam or even know much about it? It seems in a lot of ways to just be an excuse for hating somebody, anybody! Or a convenient strategy for getting into power. You know, kind of like Donald Trump…

(8) One thing that is wrong with authoritarian politics, like supporting Donald Trump or some European fascist leader, is what Bernie Sanders has recently said: we need more democracy, not less. Real and good change has to come from the participatory activity of lots and lots of people. Not from relying on some single-person “cult of personality” savior like Trump to save us. And hatred of Muslims, like Trump promotes, is playing into the hands of Radical Islam. Making Muslims feel that they are being treated like shit in American and in European societies prepares the ground for the next generation of recruits for the terrorists. Trump is the number one recruiter for ISIS. We need instead to work together with those Muslims who are willing to make a modernist Reformation of Islam and who denounce Radical Islam (like the new mayor of London). One of the truly bad things in Islam is that they don’t want to grant equality to woman in the feminist sense. But hey, the Alternative für Deutschland is in agreement with them on this! They, too, want women to go back to their traditional place in the home, baking cookies and tending to the Christian hearth.

(9) I think that the Alternative für Deutschland should be welcomed into the democratic public discussion in Germany. It’s OK that somebody represents the anti-Islam view. Let them speak out their viewpoint. And I don’t think they should be demonized as Nazis or antisemites. But still, they scare the shit out of me. Obviously their success is based on building a coalition between the many far-right crazies which there are in Germany and a lot of mainstream ordinary citizen voters. So the main tactic of the AfD is: say something far-right radical at some rally to “wink at” and get the support of the first group, then deny the very next day on some TV political talk show that you said it at all. “Muslims have no place in Germany”, I said yesterday but no, of course I never said that, of course they have a place in Germany because millions of them are living here. Trump constantly employs this same tactic. It bothers me a lot that so many Germans vote for the Alternative für Deutschland as a “protest vote.” Look at what this party actually stands for in its program. The same with Trump “protest voters”. Look at who Trump actually is. I think that the majority of Alternative für Deutschland politicians and supporters are not anti-semites. But if even 10% of their hard-core supporters or politicians are anti-semites, that is too much for me.

(10) The arrival of huge numbers of Muslims in Europe brings with it lots of anti-semitism. I don’t like this. More than 50% of people from that part of the world are antisemites. And, let’s face it, a lot of my fellow leftist intellectuals are also anti-semitic. Their one-sided critique of Israeli government policies with regards to the Palestinian situation unfortunately leads them as well into an anti-semitism which I denounce and oppose.

(11) Some important intellectuals in Germany who are in fact highly intelligent like Peter Sloterdijk, Henryk M. Broder, and Norbert Bolz are very critical of the left-liberal “ideas of 1968.” This position has also recently been taken up by the Alternative für Deutschland. Well, I think there is some validity to this position. Unlike them, however, I distinguish (“differentiate”) between what the 1968 ideas have become overall, and what I regard as being the “original” authentic ideas of the movements of 1968. For example, I love the ideas of the Situationist International in Paris and Amsterdam in 1968, who were very advanced in architecture, urban planning, futurist design, technology, social choreography and poetry, and who wanted more passion in everyday life. And I reference the uprising of the Prague Spring in 1968 which was carried out by large numbers of people who believed in democratic socialism (which was opposed to the authoritarian socialism of the Soviet Union and can be combined in a mixed economy with decentralized democratic capitalism). And the German Greens were at the beginning supposed to be against war. Until their leaders Joschka Fischer and Dany Cohn-Bendit betrayed those ideals by supporting George W. Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan just after September 11, 2001.

Those on the “new right” in America and Europe who endlessly repeat their critique of “political correctness” are themselves the kings of political correctness. Anti-political correctness political correctness. The press is lying and I know the truth. On the contrary, the essence of a democratic epistemology (theory and practice of knowledge-seeking) is to be continuously self-critical, to be like a scientist who is engaged in a research.

Democracy means discussion. Let’s open our minds and have more dialogue. Let’s really listen to each other.

Comment from Michal Klosinski:

I believe that your way of thinking is correct and that we do need to rethink our history-teaching programs as well as an overall relationship between modern-day fascism and the leftist critique of totalitarianism. The problem I see is that, for example, the Polish fascists have utilized the social ideas which the left abandoned. On top of that, the anti-Islamist/anti-immigration movement is also a problem of our idealized vision of Europe and European openness. I think that the immigration crisis is a symptom of what Europe had started to become some time ago, around the 1990′s with the libertarian belief in capitalism and European equality. Germany has been in a very good economic situation because of massive exploitation of other European countries, like Greece, Portugal, Spain, Poland, Bulgaria, etc. When we start to understand that the current state of affairs and events is in fact the effect of German-French-British politics in Europe, then maybe we will see that the impoverishment of huge masses of people linked with neoliberal destruction of education are the main causes of the rise of fascism. It is not immigration politics that we should blame for the crisis of democracy, it should be the simulacrum of Europe that was created under the auspices of developed capitalist states to exploit the countries in worse geo-political situations. Europe needs to take equality and responsibility to a new level to avoid the mass outbreak of nation-state paranoia. A worker in Poland and Greece needs to earn the same as the worker in Germany or Britain, and German politicians need to understand that 1 million immigrants in Germany equals 1 million immigrants in Europe. I generally agree with your standpoint that Nationalism + Christianity = antisemitism and fascism, but the atheist rationalism of Enlightenment is not an idea we can pursue in the context of neoliberalism… My prediction is grim, but maybe the only way to teach nationalists to change their views is to bleed them of the symbolic power they so strongly rely on. Maybe we need to perform a massive deconstruction and desintegration of the nation-state symbolic order. Unless we get people from (referencing Jacques Lacan here –>) the imaginary order into the symbolic or real orders, we are going to lose to fascism…

5 Responses

Dear Alan, I agree with many of your observations, for example that Trump is a product of massmedia, too. But I don´t think you can use the word “fascist” (which you use quite often) for him, in the sense Hitler and Mussolini adored violent militia actions, the cult of uncontrolled violence and the extermination of the common enemy, ready to abolish democracy for a one man dictatorship rule.
I think you overestimate the possibilities of democratic education (“We have done a lousy job education people about history”). Knowing how Weimar and the Nazi time is only one – and mostly badly taught – event in the curriculum of “history” in German schools. I think it has little effect on the historic memory today youngsters. The antifascist “never again” position of my generation comes from questioning why Papa and Grandpa were Nazis and why did they voluntarily take part in the war and the Nazi atrocities? Another overestimation of “education” as a matter of improving tolerance is your idea that muslims should concentrate on a “modernist reformation of Islam” (insted of sticking to the old facioned, women discriminating form, which brings along terrorism and anti-semitism). Why should they? Would you also recommend that the millions of American ultra-conservative Evangelic Christians, who, for example, fight the idea of evolution, believing that God made the world in 7 days, should turn to a “modernist” reformation of Christianism? A long as they. like some conservative Muslims, accept the lay state and don´t want to change democracy and the political system for some intolerant and totalitarian alternative, they can believe what they want.

You seem to welcome that Alternative für Deutschland has a “criticla viewabout Islam”, it is “o.k. that they represent the anti-islam view”. Woul you also say it is o.k. that the NPD represents the “anti-semitic-view” in Germany? Any party who menaces and violates the constituional right of e person to believe what he/she wants should be forbidden.

  • I thought you’d read Baudrillard.

    If the concept of politics in America and around the world is at a trans-political stage and no longer real, why do you confront the US election on the level of the real. Aren’t you just falling into the trap of simulation.

    The idea of a ‘reality’ TV star being the president of a hyperreal country (and leader of the ‘free’ world) is incredibly ironic.

    Why do people keep talking about democracy as if it is actually a desirable thing? The values behind it have disappeared and it wasn’t even great in the first place (herd rule etc). Democracy in America is constrained by the power elite anyway (mills).

  • In the essay “Baudrillard and Trump: Simulation and Object-Orientation, Not True and False” which I have just published on January 5th, 2017, I continue a Baudrillardian analysis of Trump, which I had begun in the essay which I published on February 17th, 2016 (“Donald Trump Casino Owner”).

    You are right that this “Eleven Theses” blog post confronts the election on the level of the real. It is a different approach. No, I don’t think that it is falling into the trap of simulation. Just because one engages with Baudrillard as a great thinker, does not mean that one has to clone oneself after Baudrillard. Baudrillard writes a lot about the forces which can contest simulation (symbolic exchange, seduction, reversibility, taking the side of objects, creating a “radical illusion,” etc.) And those forces potentially emerge from within simulation. In my view – I am not an “orthodox Baudrillardian” – some tactics from “the real” might also help. Nobody really knows yet the way forward on this.

    Yes, Trump is very ironic.

    Your last paragraph is flawed in several ways (from my perspective). This paragraph makes it sound like you have gone over to the side of authoritarianism and “strong men.” Or perhaps it’s just written in a too condensed way. Baudrillard criticizes what we have as “the simulation of democracy”, he doesn’t analyze the principles or values of democracy, that is outside of his scope. Certainly C. Wright Mills believed in democracy so he would not be thrilled by the context in which you have cited him. And most on the left would say that capitalism hypocritically does not practice the principles of democracy (economic inequality), but the values are still intact, so when you say that the values of democracy have disappeared, that’s a rare statement. For sure, there are an exploding number of people on the right who now say that our so-called democracy is really some kind of (media, establishment, globalization) dictatorship. But I think that we should reform what we have, in my view, the wholesale alternative systems are worse, and it would entail violence to transition to them.

  • Thanks for your response.

    When I said democratic values have disappeared, I was referring to Baudrillard’s assertion that the universal values which became popular in the enlightenment have lost meaning in a globalized technological/media saturated world after the so-called ‘death of the real’.

    I understand your non-orthodox position, but didn’t Baudrillard reject reforming the system as such when he criticized Marxists for their ‘good use of the economy’ in the Mirror of Production. I realize this is uncharted territory, but from what you said I guess you would rather reform things than return to a prior mode of human relations outside the sphere of production like symbolic exchange or seduction. I’m not even sure Baudrillard thought going back to that scenario is even possible or desirable.

  • Thank you, Simon, for your comments. Your two paragraphs refer to positions taken by Baudrillard in two very different time periods, so let’s consider them (at least at first) separately. I hold Baudrillard in very high esteem in all areas, except for, let’s say, politics, or what we could call “political philosophy.” In this area, I am much closer to Claude Lefort (whom I have also written about in my blog). Despite his rejection of Marx in The Mirror of Production (1973), he is making a sort of “immanent” critique of Marx and he is within the “revolutionary” Zeitgeist of May 1968 and the late 60s. The values of play, creativity, gift-giving economy that one believes in are radical values different from the values of production. However, I would call myself a hybrid anarchist-liberal (with a little bit of “anarchist Marx,” his critique of alienated labor in the “1844 Manuscripts”) because I would not believe in throwing away the system of production. Yes, on the practical level, I would be trying to reform it (since I don’t believe in violence and I also don’t want to throw away the achievements of the technological society) on the practical level. But this practical design can be the implementation of ideas which are radical to the system (Baudrillard sort of says this in “The Singular Objects of Architecture”). A radical 60s position which makes sense to me is that of Marcuse, who sort of said that advanced technologies could free us from the drudgery of work so that we could be ludic and liberated, the overcoming of scarcity and the proper implementation of automation could be a prerequisite to emanciptation.

    What you say in the first paragraph refers to more recent writings of Baudrillard where he is saying that the global has eroded the values of the universal of liberal democracy. You are correct (although I don’t know if I would connect it directly to the “death of the real”). I think a statement that Baudrillard makes in one of the interviews in the Mike Gane “Baudrillard Live” book is very important. He said that he does not pay attention to what other people say about his work or how they “use” his work, because his work can be “used for anything.” I think this is a hugely important point — because Baudrillard says very little directly about politics, therefore who the hell knows what it means politically, I think one does have to bring it into dialogue with other thinkers, perspectives (Coulter disagreed with me on this). So, in a sense, Baudrillard’s critique of globalization could be appropriated by today’s right-wing “anti-globalization populists”. (hey Nietzsche was appropriated by Nazis). Baudrillard makes a great and valid point here. But let’s not make that point into an absolute truth. Nothing should be seen as being absolutely the case. One can say that, in an interesting way, democratic values have been badly damaged by globalization, but an additional important question is what is the epistemological status of that statement, of a statement like that? If one elevates it epistemologically into an absolutist statement then an absolutist politics can be implied.

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